Posts Tagged ‘John Stanley’

Ranking the Masters


Friday, February 18, 2011

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Gary Groth twitted: “The greatest artists who worked n commercial comics? My vote (in order); Carl Barks, Jack Kirby & Harvey Kurtzman (tie), John Stanley.” The list seems on target but the ranking can be argued with. These are all superb cartoonists and as such, their writing/art needs to be seen as an integrated whole. Still, some of them are stronger on the writing front, others as visual artists. And of course Stanley, Kirby and Kurtzman all did a lot of collaborative work, including some of their best work.

So if I were ranking them as visual artists I’d say Kirby, Kurtzman, Barks, Stanley. If I were ranking them as writers I’d say Stanley, Kurtzman, Barks, Kirby. But what if writing and art can’t be separated? What if I had to rank them simply as cartoonists? A really tough choice. Purely a personal matters but I’d say Stanley, Kirby, Kurtzman, Barks. But that’s a ranking that could easily change at the drop of a hat. Fun factoid: three of these cartoonists (Stanley, Barks, Kurtzman) were doing their best work at the exact same time, circa 1950-1955. That was the real Golden Age of commercial comics.

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Schizophrenia: or, Five Unrelated Links


Thursday, September 9, 2010

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1. New Richard Sala site.

2. The kind of readers who frequent this site have probably already seen this, but if not, you really should check out Daniel Raeburn’s website. Last week, he posted free pdfs of all four issues of The Imp, which includes an unfairly large proportion of the best and most insightful comics criticism of the last fifteen years. This is essential reading.

3. New Matthew Thurber site.

4. David Bordwell delivers a typically meaty essay on the downsides of episodic, serialized entertainment, focusing mainly on the prime delivery method for the highest grade junk of this type: television.

Having been lured by intriguing people more or less like us, you keep watching. Once you’re committed, however, there is trouble on the horizon. There are two possible outcomes. The series keeps up its quality and maintains your loyalty and offers you years of enjoyment. Then it is canceled. This is outrageous. You have lost some friends. Alternatively, the series declines in quality, and this makes you unhappy. You may drift away. Either way, your devotion has been spit upon.

It’s true that there is a third possibility. You might die before the series ends. How comforting is that?

With film you’re in and you’re out and you go on with your life. TV is like a long relationship that ends abruptly or wistfully. One way or another, TV will break your heart.

Incidentally, along the way, he quotes the late, great Gilbert Seldes (best known to funny-page aficionados for his seminal essay on Krazy Kat).

But the main interest here for comics readers, or course, is that, at least here in America, their medium of choice is the second most popular purveyor of long-lived serial entertainment. Though with comics the heart-breaking potential is even greater. From Blondie and Gasoline Alley to Batman and Spider-Man, a surprising number of ancient titles are still around, potentially offering a lifetime of fiction featuring the exact same characters. (That the recent cancellations of strips such as Cathy and Little Orphan Annie have received so much attention is testament to how rarely such cash cows are allowed to expire.)

It is sometimes fun to wonder what it might be like if television was run like the comics industry — would The Beverly Hillbillies still be on the air, with its fifth cast, rei-magined to exude a “grim and gritty” atmosphere? I guess Dallas was sort of like that… And then there’s Star Trek. And 90210. Ah, maybe this isn’t so much fun to think about after all. The Bordwell essay’s still worthwhile.

5. Finally, I like it when Sammy Harkham writes about comics. He does it too rarely. Last month, he published a short but sweet post on artist and beermonger Ron Regé. This led to an interesting exchange in the comments about the practice of constructing comics stories out of a collection of smaller, interconnected strips (e.g. Ice Haven, much of David Heatley’s work, Wimbledon Green). One particular anonymous commenter was very much against the practice, considering it a trendy cheat, doomed to appear as dated in the future as ’90s-era CGI “morphing” does today (my analogy, not his/hers).

Derik Badman draws attention to two previous posts worth reading on the subject, written by Charles Hatfield and Craig Fischer.

I end up on the boring but correctly neutral side of another anonymous commenter in that thread—”Who cares if it is a trendo or a gimmick?”—but I really do enjoy the effect of this kind of comics “mosaic” when it’s done right. And generally, even when an artistic technique is considered newfangled, gimmicky, or showoffy, there’s a good chance it has actually been around for a long time. (See Steven Moore’s recent The Novel: An Alternate History, for an entertaining recounting of a few millennia worth of examples of literary postmodernism, all somehow predating capital-M Modernism by centuries.) And this same phenomenon seems to be true in this discussion as well. One name in particular that doesn’t seem to be coming up yet (unless I missed it) is John Stanley. In fact, a big part of the enjoyment for me of reading his Melvin Monster and (especially) Thirteen Going on Eighteen books has come from the inventive and surprising ways in which he builds his issues through combining standalone stories. I am sure there are many more (and better) examples of pre-’90s and ’00s cartoonists doing this kind of thing, but my main point is simply that nothing new exists under the sun, a clichéd insight that’s been repeated by about a million morons like myself, probably since well before it appeared in Ecclesiastes. Let me say it once more for old time’s sake.

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John Stanley Notebook


Thursday, March 18, 2010

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Little Lulu #19

Along with my friends Frank Young and Gail Singer, I just recorded an Inkstuds episode devoted to John Stanley. You can listen to it here.

And below are some excerpts from my John Stanley notebook:

 Stanley as Lulu. Month after month, Lulu had to improvise a story to please that pesky small-fry Alvin. Lulu was adept at spinning out burlesque yarns featuring stock characters – poor girls, kings, witches — and coming up with new scenarios for them to enact. Wasn’t Lulu’s plight the same as Stanley’s? He was on a story tread mill, he had to keep running to make the kids happy, there was no let up or relief for nearly thirty years.

Mummy as Enabler. Is it too much to see Melvin Monster as an allegory about child abuse? Melvin’s always under the threat of violence, sometimes death itself. His chief persecutor is his father, Baddy. The name says it all: Baddy equals bad daddy (a pun related to Blake’s nickname for the God of organized religion: Nobodaddy). Melvin’s mother, Mummy, is all wrapped up in the Egyptian manner. That means she has no eyes to see what is happening. She turns a blind eye to Melvin’s situation. That’s the way it often is with abusive families: one parent is violent, the other a blinkered or self-deceived enabler.


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Thirteen (Going on Eighteen) Notes


Wednesday, March 3, 2010

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This isn’t a review. These are just a few different notes/ideas after reading Drawn and Quarterly’s recent collection of John Stanley‘s Thirteen (Going on Eighteen).

1. These comics are like a ping-pong match. Val runs right, runs left, right, left, back and forth. The dialogue is like this too, like Seth’s repeated image of Val and Judy in silhouette facing-off. If Val’s excited, she grabs Judy by her arms, and then Judy will pull back the opposite way.

If there are six panels on a page, the average page could be seen as battle between the right column and the left: running, bouncing back and forth, with each panel having two characters screaming, grabbing, pulling each other back and forth. It’s all motion. It’s all high conflict, high energy. It reminds me of how kids always run towards something. They never walk. They scream, “Nuh-uh!” If they don’t like something they run in the opposite direction. It’s super entertaining.

A scene where Val’s stuck in a doorway during a rainstorm, waiting for anyone to come by with an umbrella (anyone but Charles!) would be a static scene in any other comic, but here the rain substitutes for the running zig-zag ping-pong motion. Stanley took a quiet scene and made it an energetic back-and-forth riot. I love how Val balls together her fists and leans back when she yells. “Oh, I can’t bear it! I can’t bear it!”


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The Mid-Life Crisis of the Great Commercial Cartoonists


Saturday, February 20, 2010

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Further to Dan’s excellent post on Wally Wood, one way to think about Wood’s career is to realize that he followed a pattern common to commercial comic book artists of his era. Think of Kirby, Ditko, Kane, and Eisner (and maybe also John Stanley). All these cartoonists started off as journeymen artists, had a mid-life crisis which made them try do more artistically ambitious work, but ended up being thwarted either by the limits of their talent or the constraints of marketplace.

Jack Kirby had his midlife crisis in the late 1960s. He already had a formidable body of work, arguably the best adventure cartooning ever done in the comic book form, running from the explosive patriotic bombast of the early Captain America to the mind-stretching cosmic adventures of the Fantastic Four and Thor. But by the late 1960s he was tired of playing second fiddle that blowhardy glory-hound Stan Lee. So Kirby made is big break for DC and became the auteur behind the hugely ambitious Fourth World series. I’m very fond of the Fourth World series, and even enjoy the aspect of them that is most often mocked, Kirby’s peculiar writing style, which to my ears at least has a kind of vatic poetry. Be that as it may, DC comics wasn’t willing to give the series the support they deserved and the books were canceled mid-storyline, leaving us with the fragments of a promising epic. Kirby would go on doing fascinating work, but he never really got over the sting of losing the Fourth World. None of his subsequent work had the same crazy ambition as the Fourth World.

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John Stanley and the Two Gregory Gallants


Friday, September 4, 2009

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In the world of comics there are two Gregory Gallants, both of whom bear the imprint of John Stanley. The more famous Gregory Gallant is the Canadian cartoonist Seth (Gregory Gallant being Seth’s birth name).

Stanley, it’s fair to say, has many admirers but few advocates. As compared to Jack Kirby or Will Eisner, there haven’t really been many books or essays celebrating Stanley’s work (the fine blog Stanley Stories, maintained by Frank Young, is an exception). The Canadian cartoonist has long been one of the most vocal champions of Stanley’s oeuvre, recently designing the beautiful new series from Drawn and Quarterly that is reprinting such Stanley works as Nancy, Melvin Monster and Thirteen. Seth has also written the single best essay on Stanley’s work, which ran in the Comics Journal # 238, an eloquent examination of Stanley’s teen trilogy.

If we’re living through a John Stanley renaissance right now, Seth deserves much of the credit. (Along with, of course, the fine people at Dark Horse and D&Q).

Seth’s work has been strongly shaped by his love of Stanley. This can most easily be seen in Seth’s graphic novel Wimbledon Green, which can be read as an extended homage to Stanley. From the glimpses we get of it, Wimbledon Green’s favorite comic, Fine and Dandy, seems like a lost masterwork by Stanley, with the great cartoonist’s typical focus on character and recurring plots. The hobo theme in Fine and Dandy is perhaps a distant echo of the many tramps that populate Stanley’s universe (there is a memorable story where Tubby makes a stab at hobo-dom). And Wimbledon himself is a Stanley-esque creation: he’s Tubby all grown up. Like Little Lulu’s chubby pal, Green is an overgrown romantic egoist who uses his fecund imagination to bend reality to fit his flights of fancy. The way that Seth organizes his comics, with each page as a unit of attention, owes something to Stanley as well.

In the introduction to their fabulous new Toon Treasury of Classic Children’s Comics, Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly note that, “the melancholy in many of today’s more emotionally resonant graphic novels can be found right below the surface of John Stanley’s work.” Certainly Seth’s melancholy shares an affinity with Stanley’s similar tropism towards a spirited, lightly masked disconsolation.

There is also a parallel to be found in a recurring family dynamic. In Stanley’s work, the family is a mom-centered affair, with dad being a distant, absent or cold figure (most menacingly in the form of Baddy, the abusive patriarch in the Melvin Monster series). When in trouble, Stanley’s kids almost always cry for their mom. The same family-situation, perhaps rooted in the autobiography of both cartoonists, shows up in Seth’s work.

But nearly a decade before Seth was born, there was another Gregory Gallant. In Little Lulu #60 (June 1953), we find a story called “Rich Little Poor Boy” which features a run in by Lulu with Gregory Gallant, described as “the big movie star.” Like Seth, Gregory Gallant wears a stylish suit and has a way with the ladies. “All the girls are crazy about him!” exclaims Lulu’s boisterous little pal Annie. But in contrast to the modest and gentle Seth, the cartoon Gregory Gallant is stuck up and mean-spirited. (This story can be found in the Dark Horse book Queen Lulu, volume 14 of their Lulu reprint series).

Artists, I’ve often noticed, create their own family tree, discovering through influence their ancestors and giving birth to unexpected descendants. In the case of John Stanley, he created Gregory Gallant twice over.

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The Hunter


Monday, August 10, 2009

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Darwyn Cooke‘s graphic adaptation of the late Richard (actually Donald Westlake) Stark‘s The Hunter is one of those books that I wanted to like: An adaptation of a novel I love, obviously the work of a dedicated artist, respectful, well crafted, and nicely put together. So it’s with some regret that I have to report I found it oddly lifeless, a storyboard in the guise of a comic book.

The Hunter, published in 1962, is the story of a criminal named Parker who, after being betrayed and left for dead, makes his way to New York City to take revenge and claim his stolen money. It is the first in a series of crime novels that follow the anti-hero Parker as he first takes his life back, then fights for it, and finally goes about living it (which means more crime). I’ve read about a half dozen of Westlake’s Parker books, including The Hunter. They are precisely constructed suspense stories told in surprisingly minimal and propulsive prose. This isn’t the hard-boiled-yet-baroque language of Chandler, but something closer to Hammett or even Hemingway. The books are so well written and so disciplined that I sometimes wonder if Westlake/Stark invented Parker partly as a way to experiment with pauses and silences in his writing.

So, I could be wrong here, but it seems to me that Cooke fundamentally misread Stark: Though nearly all of the action and dialogue of his adaptation mimics the source, he somehow took a minimalist novel and over-visualized it as a maximalist, over-the-top orgy of genre cliches.

Parker’s entrance into New York City, vividly written as an unstoppable dark march by Stark, he is rendered by Cooke as a grandiose overture, logos a-swirling and dames a-swooning. It’s so hokey and so mannered that I expected a baritone to appear and belt out “New York New York”.

For example, here’s Stark:

He walked north till he came to a leather goods shop. He bought a hundred and fifty dollars’ worth of good luggage, a matched set of four pieces. He showed the driver’s license for identification, and they didn’t even call the bank. Two blocks he carried the luggage, and then he got thirty-five dollars for it at a pawn shop. He went crosstown, and did it twice more–luggage to a pawn shop–and got another eighty dollars.

And here’s Cooke:

From the start every room Parker walks into has an Eames chair and a Noguchi table. Every clock is by George Nelson. All the women are outfitted like cheesecake “dames.” And none of it tells the reader a thing about the story or the characters. I’m all for establishing a sense of place—it’s just that all of Cooke’s places appear to be mid-century modern catalog photos. I’ve seen reviews likening Cooke’s set pieces to the use of period detail in Mad Men, but on that show those material goods are not only symbols of status, power, and sophistication, but also objects that suffocate, reduce, and entrap the characters. In The Hunter they just seem extraneous. The absence of such clutter from Stark’s prose is partly why it works; writing that lean allows the reader to fall into the creator’s rhythm. Cooke just piles it on, bogging down the action in a mess of suits and ashtrays.

It strikes me that what Cooke has done here is basically understandable: He overlayed his ideas of crime fiction on top of Stark’s. The beauty of Stark’s work is that it’s elusive and leaves much to the reader’s imagination. It’s modest and seductive in that way. But where another artist might have retained that simplicity of form and language, Cooke seemed to want to fill in the gaps and transform it into a grand production. I can see how he got there, but I don’t think it works.

Even if I’m wrong and Cooke’s reading is utterly faithful, this adaptation doesn’t work very well as a comic book. Cooke’s character design is strangely generic, his storytelling is often unclear, and his drawing, while polished and stylish, is dull. Parker looks like a generic sort of Bruce Wayne, with a face and body language that betrays not a hint of an inner-life. Panel-to-panel and particularly page-to-page Cooke has a difficult time clearly conveying where a scene is occurring and what, precisely, the action and emotions are that he’s trying to draw.

The spread below is a perfect example. Like a noir film director Cooke wants to move the reader around Wanda’s room with variously sized panels to enliven a couple pages of dialogue. But this isn’t film; another cartoonist might have just used body language and facial expressions, along with a concrete sense of place to do the same job. Cooke shifts his p.o.v. multiple times on a single page, and I can’t get any fixed idea of where the two characters are in the room, what the scale is, and what the atmosphere might be like. This would be a little less disorienting if only there was a compositional scheme tying the panels together. Add to that the fact that figure and ground have the same fuzzed out line-weight and you have a very confusing spread.

On the rare occasions that Cooke keeps his p.o.v. and his panel size steady, allowing his characters to carry the narrative load, he’s seems unable to imbue his drawings with life. Below we see Parker killing his first target, his figure abstracted and repeated to heighten the drama. But the abstraction is limp and lifeless: There is no tension in the figures and no sense of the force and weight of this struggle, so what should have been a climactic moment is just another page.

And when Cooke does go in for some form of inky expressionism I wish he’d stuck with more genericized forms. This spread fails on a lot of levels: The figures are stiff, the brushwork tentative at best, and the composition decidedly not dramatic.

When I think of this work I think of what Mort Meskin would have done, with his vibrant, almost ecstatic brush marks; what Toth might have done with his sense of page design and the figure in space; or what the younger Mazzucchelli might have done with his figures weighted in space and rooted in fully imagined environments. I think of all that and wonder at such a missed opportunity. Those guys used cinematic set-ups, but they never allowed style to overtake content. Krigstein, for example, was a master of adapting filmic rhythms into comics. But at the heart of his experimentalism is a drive for clarity.

Oddly, I like the idea of Darwyn Cooke’s work, particularly the notion that he’s some sort of standard bearer of the great action cartoonists of the 1950s. He clearly loves what he does, and his graphic novel is obviously a thoroughly planned and executed book (however wrongheaded). But the trouble is that I never actually enjoy reading him. A stray image here or there is attractive in the same way I like looking at a drawing by his closest aesthetic relative: Bruce Timm. But for me there’s never been any sense of character underneath all that style, and no particular interest in the surface marks either.

I read The Hunter within a few weeks of reading Melvin Monster by John Stanley. Granted, this is a very odd comparison, but stay with me. The material in Melvin Monster was drawn around the same time as The Hunter was written, and Stanley’s verve and control are not unlike Stark’s. Stanley’s storytelling is clear but never didactic, his drawing has a palpable flourish to it, and his stories are consistently funny and surprising. What more do you want from a comic that has to play within certain genre rules? On a formal level seems to have done everything Cooke is trying to do, and with a light touch, too. Cooke wants to make classic, mid-century comics, but seems too rooted in the trappings of storyboards and animation short-hand to allow himself to pare down, simplify, and let the story tell itself.

Stanley, a master of multi-layered storytelling in a variety of genres, makes it all look so easy (though it’s obviously very very difficult). In a way, Stanley would have been ideal for Stark: Each was a master of concise storytelling and rhythmic language. Cooke, while surely talented as stylist and animator, just isn’t capable of that kind if hard-earned comic book simplicity. Not yet at least.

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